BJP President Amit Shah addresses the media on Aug 16, 2018. (Photographer: Ravi Choudhary/PTI)

Lord Krishna To ‘Editor Arjun(s)’: Don’t Let ’Em Get Away With Lies

BloombergQuintOpinion

Last week I made my first bi-coastal trip to post-Trump America, hopping from New York to Los Angeles and back. It’s always an illuminating journey, given how India mimics an American trajectory in media, business and politics, lagging by a decade or two. In fact, I’ve called the two countries “fetal siblings from the womb of British Colonialism, born over 150 years apart”. There is so much in common.

Lord Krishna To ‘Editor Arjun(s)’: Don’t Let ’Em Get Away With Lies

Today, it’s spooky how similarly charged India’s and America’s political atmosphere is. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, hugely dissimilar personalities in outward conduct – one writes crude tweets, the other remains strategically silent – have nonetheless created equally polarised democracies ten thousand miles apart. Both have fanatical followers who blithely spew hate and intimidate adversaries. Even mild critics are branded as traitors.

Either you are a lackey, or an enemy.

Immigrants and minorities are chained to fear. Both leaders beat big chests, claiming credit for everything, from high economic growth, skyrocketing stock markets, to cleansing the previous regime’s muck and draining the capital’s swamp.

And what about their attitude towards independent news platforms? Aaaah, just ban these anti-national purveyors of lies and fake news!

But unlike our craven surrender in India, I saw real spunk in how America’s news outfits are fighting back against Trump. They’ve taken their gloves off, shedding bashful conventions in an ‘all’s fair’ war. Once upon a genteel time, editors would scrupulously observe an unwritten ethic – they would never question, denigrate or take down news stories put out by competitors. Yes, there would be bar-room whispers about others’ reporters being set up, falling for a hoax, or manufacturing scoops – but all that sniping was done off the record. Now that is no longer the case.

Jeanine Ferris Pirro, More Loyal Than King Trump

I was astonished at how American news channels have crafted a new code of conduct where they name and shame professional rivals, uninhibitedly pick up video clips from their shows, insert them in their own and launch a blistering counter-attack.

Jeanine Ferris Pirro is the colourful host of Justice with Judge Jeanine, a weekend show broadcast on Fox News. She was a real Judge of the Westchester County Court in the early 1990s, and an active Republican politician. Her husband (later divorced) was indicted for tax fraud and sentenced to 29 months in a federal prison. Pirro almost challenged Hillary Clinton in the race for New York Senator in 2005. A real estate dude named Donald Trump (and Tommy Hilfiger) donated campaign funds to her.

Later, she mounted a no-holds-barred defence of POTUS in her #1 New York Times bestseller, Liars, Leakers, and Liberals: The Case Against the Anti-Trump Conspiracy.

Jeanine Pirro with her new book ‘Liars, Leakers, and Liberals’. (Photograph: <a href="https://twitter.com/JudgeJeanine">@<b>JudgeJeanine</b></a>/Twitter)
Jeanine Pirro with her new book ‘Liars, Leakers, and Liberals’. (Photograph: @JudgeJeanine/Twitter)

She is an unabashed post-truth activist, claiming that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi was “released by Obama in 2009”. When Trump was roundly criticised for that “shameful” press conference with the Russian President, she jumped to his defence, asking “what was he supposed to do, take a gun and shoot Putin?”. Some even speculate that she could be Trump’s pick for Attorney General when Jeff Sessions is fired. Unsurprisingly, she has called Sessions “the most dangerous man in America”. She is also a cancer survivor.

I watched her utterly partisan show on Robert Mueller (who is unrelentingly investigating President Trump) on last Saturday in New York. “When things go terribly wrong and a crime scene clean-up is needed, the mafia calls in the cleaner, the one who disposes off the body after the hit or covers up the evidence after the crime… and when things go terribly wrong for the Democrats, they call in the ‘serial cleaner’” (ie, Mueller). She ended the diatribe by saying that Mueller was “panicking” because he had “nothing” on Trump. No journalistic evidence was cited. No facts were produced. Just a grand, unsubstantiated observation was made – “Mueller is panicking” - and repeated, and repeated, and repeated, to somehow convert it into the “truth”.

American News Channels Name and Shame Truant Competitors!

Next morning, I switched to CNN. Brian Stelter’s Reliable Sources was on air. I was completely taken aback when he cut to Jeanine Pirro pillorying Mueller for “panicking” – a Fox News Clip was inserted into a CNN show, with undisguised branding and attribution! No caveats, no compunction, no hand wringing. And then Stelter went after Pirro for manufacturing the news that “Mueller was panicking”. It was a straight one-on-one reprisal.

In the same show, Stelter also cut into a clip from NBC’s Meet the Press with Rudy Giuliani, where the Trump groupie made the eye-rubbing assertion that “truth isn’t truth”.

This was clearly the new normal in our staid world of news.

The professional restraint of a bygone era – thou shall not comment on a competitor’s news story – had been jettisoned.

American news television had made its peace with Lord Krishna’s updesh (sermon) to a reluctant Arjun on Boston’s battlefield in the Bhagavad-Gita:

Arjun: My Lord Govind, I feel dejected and aggrieved by the thought of hand-to-hand combat with my peers…

Krishna: Hey Arjun, if you refuse to fight this righteous war, who will call you a warrior? If you don’t take on this challenge, which is your duty, you shall be castigated like an ordinary sinner. Your old ethics be damned. You have to fight this new evil with counter-evil, post-truth with truth.

India’s ‘Editor Arjun(s)’ Have To Fight Their Battle Of New Delhi Now

All through my flight from New York to New Delhi, I wrestled with a dilemma – had the Americans got it right?

Is it fair to purloin clips from your rivals’ shows, insert them in your own, and then proceed to decimate her on your turf?

Has the situation degraded so perilously that a time-tested ethic should be brutalised? To peddle a cliché’, should ‘ends justify the means’? My inner Arjun was restless, in turmoil.

I landed smack in the middle of two ‘huge’ (I am kidding!) news controversies. Former cricketer and current Congress politician, Navjot Singh Sidhu, had gone to Pakistan to attend his sports pal, freshly minted Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s inauguration. There he hugged – Heaven’s, twice – the Pakistan Army Chief in an all-encompassing Punjabi jhappi (bear hug). Why? Because the Pakistanis had unexpectedly agreed to provide a free corridor to Indian pilgrims to Kartarpur Sahib Gurudwara on Guru Nanak’s 550th birth anniversary next year. But our desi (native) Jeanine Pirros would have none of it. They just went ballistic, calling Sidhu a traitor, and extending that barbaric encomium to his political boss, Rahul Gandhi. Both were called “anti-India, pro-Pakistan”. No caveats. No compunction. No hand wringing.

Delhi BJP Yuva Morcha workers stage a protest against Punjab Minister Navjot Singh Sidhu for visiting Pakistan, in New Delhi on August 21, 2018. Photograph: Kamal Singh/PTI)
Delhi BJP Yuva Morcha workers stage a protest against Punjab Minister Navjot Singh Sidhu for visiting Pakistan, in New Delhi on August 21, 2018. Photograph: Kamal Singh/PTI)

And then Rahul Gandhi said in Hamburg that “it is very dangerous in the 21st century to exclude people”. He made the rather obvious causality that joblessness, economic deprivation, and political exclusion feed into extremism and violence. Rahul also said, in another context, that Indian men are patriarchal and treat women unfairly. How can anybody disagree with these axioms? But of course our desi (local) Jeanine Pirros took off, accusing Rahul of “insulting Indian Muslims, Indian culture”. The fusillade ended with the predictable “pro-Pakistan” taunt. Once again, a grand, unsubstantiated observation was repeated, and repeated, and repeated, to somehow convert it into the “truth”.

But did any of India’s credible news anchors dare to call out these editorial renegades?

Straight, one-on-one, like Brian Stelter of CNN took down Jeanine Pirro of Fox News? No. None of our surviving (so few of them left now!) news hosts had the gumption to do that. Or perhaps they are still wrestling with their own ethical demons, whose sell-by date is long over. Perhaps India’s dwindling news titans need to have their own conversation with Lord Krishna on New Delhi’s battlefield:

India’s Editor Arjun(s): My Lord Madhusudan, I am surrounded by evil, compromised professionals who utter lies and falsehoods. But how do I fight them? My hands shake while holding the bow… after all, these Editorial Kauravas are my professional cousins?

Krishna: Hey Arjun(s), wake up the Pandava in your soul. This is a Holy War, of the righteous, and every soldier-journalist gets a stairway to Editorial Heaven. Stand up and fight, with peace in your soul.

PS: Dear reader, please quote-tweet and tag #IndiasBhaktTVAnchors with this piece. Perhaps that shall stir our dead conscience.

Raghav Bahl is the co-founder and chairman of Quintillion Media, including BloombergQuint. He is the author of two books, viz ‘Superpower?: The Amazing Race Between China’s Hare and India’s Tortoise’, and ‘Super Economies: America, India, China & The Future Of The World’.